North Country residents recall 40th anniversary of Woodstock
August 12, 2009
NORTH COUNTRY—Forty years ago this week the nation watched in awe—or disgust—as a half million rain-soaked hippies amicably gathered at a weekend concert that has become simply known as Woodstock.
It became a touchstone for a generation, which wanted to change the world, but ultimately was changed by it. Three local men—Woody Miller, Peter Riviere, and David Van Houten were there, and despite echoing disillusionment about the lost of idealism, fondly recall their experience.
These men were drawn to the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival mostly by the music, and once there, were awed by the sheer volume of people and the cooperative, kindly spirit, despite the poor weather and supply shortages that engulfed the pig farm which was temporarily converted into a concert sight.
Van Houten, of Bethlehem, was 18 during the summer of 1969, having just graduated from high school in Princeton, N.J. He and his girlfriend at the time were one of the few attendees who actually purchased tickets, which he still has today. He was motivated by the music and, at the time, was not part of the counter culture, anti-war movement.
Miller, of Franconia, was a 19-year-old tennis pro in Sugar Bush, Vt., at the time. His decision to go to Woodstock was spontaneous and initiated by a waiter friend of his. They went without having purchased tickets. It was the start of a personal transformation into a hippie, but at that time, he said, "I wasn't as cool as most people."
Riviere, of Lancaster, was 22 at the time, and a U.S. Navy veteran. He was very much a part of the hippie culture living in a Portsmouth commune while attending UNH. The focus of the venue was indeed music, not politics, and the top rock and roll and folk musicians were participating. "It would have taken 10 years of going to concerts to see this line up. All the names that you'd hope to ever see were in one place," Riviere added, "But where the hell is Woodstock?"
As the attendees would soon find out the concert was moved 50 miles away to Bethel, N.Y., a small farming community slightly bigger than Whitefield. All three men got there the same way, driving until the traffic halted and then by foot. The average Woodstock attendee walked 15 miles to get to Max Yasgur's farm. Van Houten, who borrowed his parents' car to make the trek from New Jersey, remembers the traffic getting heavier and heavier and then it just stopped. At that point, they pulled over and parked the car and walked for several miles to the concert location. The concert's organizers—and the host town were quickly overwhelmed by the turnout. Two-hundred thousand people were expected, but more than twice that showed up. No one could have anticipated or orchestrated an event of this magnitude. The true organic nature of it, Riviere said, is "the magic of what happened."
Van Houten remembered that along the route to the farm, residents set up little stores on their front yards. Food and supplies were in short supply and needed to be brought in by helicopter. Adding to the challenges of organizers and camping concertgoers was the weather—three days of rain turned the farmland into a mud hole. The circumstances didn't dampen the mood though, and, in some ways, it extenuated an ambiance of mutual concern and peaceful coexistence. Riviere remembered an announcement over the loud speakers that the Woodstock concert had grown so large that it "is the second largest city in New York (and) no one over 35-years-old was there."
Van Houten said he didn't witness any major problems. "Everyone was coexisting in a very pleasant way even when the weather went bad." Just the sheer size of crowd amazed Miller. "There were more people in one place than I had ever seen in my life," he said, "Of course, there was a lot of weirdness too, like naked people climbing the scaffolding but nothing dangerous and menacing." And then, there were drugs—lots of marijuana and LSD. Although it is estimated that 90 percent of the attendees partook in illegal drugs—Van Houten was not among them. "I was clean, and I had a great time," he said, "I didn't do drugs or drink."
With more than two-dozen legendary performers—including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, The Grateful Dead, Crosby Stills Nash and Young—the three men concurred that Richie Havens, who led off the star-studded line up, was the best.
Woodstock, Riviere said. "Was just a moment in time." And that moment and the idealism that it represented, like all things, changed with the passage of time. Miller, Van Houten and Riviere, who are all nearing old age themselves, are impatient with the progress of the last 40 years toward the ideals of the 1960s. "We were going to change the world," Van Houten said, "but change doesn't come that easy."